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An American Tragedy

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Subject: Theodore Dreiser, A Northern Light, American Dream, Politics of Massachusetts, Sergei Eisenstein
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An American Tragedy

An American Tragedy
First edition, published in two volumes
Author Theodore Dreiser
Country USA
Language English
Genre Crime, Journalism product
Publisher Boni & Liveright
Publication date
December 17, 1925
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 880 (reissue)
ISBN NA (first edition)
ISBN 0-451-52465-9 (reissue)

An American Tragedy (1925) is a novel by the legendary American writer Theodore Dreiser.

Plot summary

The ambitious but ill-educated, illusioned, and immature Clyde Griffiths is raised by poor and devoutly religious parents who force him to participate in their street missionary work, and on reaching young adulthood takes low-status jobs as a soda jerk and then as a bellhop at a top Kansas City hotel. There, his more sophisticated colleagues introduce him to alcohol and prostitutes. Clyde enjoys his new lifestyle and becomes infatuated with the mercenary Hortense Briggs, who exploits this characteristic of Clyde by compelling him to buy her an expensive jacket in exchange for love, even though she clearly does not want him to be her partner. Hortense instead wants another person named Sparser, and this is clear to Clyde and is immediately and extremely jealous, but Hortense repeatedly reassures Clyde that she loves him, though she really wants him just for the jacket. Later, Clyde's life changes dramatically when Sparser, possessing a stolen vehicle with everybody inside (including Clyde's colleages), runs over a little girl and kills her, and then, trying to flee from the police, crashes into an object, and everybody inside but Sparser and his partner are still conscious and flee. This cycle of unfortunate events is bound to repeat later in the story with Clyde and another girl, later resulting in the novel being a tragedy. Clyde flees Kansas City, and while working as bellboy at an exclusive club in Chicago, he meets his wealthy uncle Samuel Griffiths, the owner of a shirt-collar factory in the fictional Lycurgus, New York. Samuel, feeling guilt for neglecting his poor relations, offers to help Clyde if he will come to Lycurgus. When Clyde does so he gives him first a menial, then a supervisory job at the collar factory, while not accepting him into the Griffiths' upper-class social circle.

It is made clear to Clyde that as a Griffiths, he should not consort with the working people of Lycurgus, and specifically with the women under his supervision. As he is not taken up socially by the Griffiths' set, he suffers loneliness. In this position, he is attracted to Roberta Alden, a poor and innocent farm girl working in his department, who falls in love with him. Clyde initially enjoys the clandestine relationship (forbidden by factory rules); he ultimately persuades her to have sex with him rather than lose him, and makes her pregnant. Meanwhile the elegant Sondra Finchley, daughter of a Lycurgus factory owner, takes an interest in Clyde primarily to spite his cousin Gilbert, with whom she is on bad terms. Clyde's engaging manner makes him popular among the young smart set and provides him with opportunities to develop a relationship with Sondra. The pregnant Roberta expects him to marry her, but Clyde dreams instead of marrying Sondra.

Dust jacket of early edition of An American Tragedy, published by Boni & Liveright, 1926

Having unsuccessfully attempted to procure an abortion for Roberta, Clyde procrastinates while his relationship with Sondra matures. When he realizes that he has a genuine chance to marry Sondra, and after Roberta threatens to reveal their relationship unless he marries her, Clyde reluctantly devises a plan to murder Roberta in an ostensible boating accident, having seen a news report of such a case.

Clyde takes Roberta on a row boat on Big Bittern Lake in upstate New York and rows to a remote area. As he speaks to her regarding the end of their relationship, Roberta moves towards him, and he unintentionally strikes her in the face with his camera, stunning her and capsizing the boat, rendering it all an accident instead of a murder. Roberta, unable to swim, drowns while Clyde, unwilling to save her, swims to shore. The narrative does imply (without stating explicitly) that the blow was accidental, but the trail of circumstantial evidence left by the panicky and guilt-ridden Clyde points to murder. The local authorities are eager to convict Clyde, to the point of manufacturing additional evidence against him, although he repeatedly incriminates himself with his confused and contradictory testimony. A sensational trial before an unsympathetic and prejudiced audience of mostly religious conservative farmers ensues; despite a vigorous (and untruthful) defense mounted by two lawyers hired by his uncle, Clyde is convicted, sentenced to death, and (an appeal having failed) is executed by electric chair. The jailhouse scenes and the correspondence between Clyde and his mother stand out as exemplars of pathos in modern literature.

Influences and Characteristics

Dreiser based the book on a notorious criminal case. On July 11, 1906, resort owners found an overturned boat and the body of 20-year-old Grace Brown at Big Moose Lake in the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York. Chester Gillette was put on trial and convicted of killing Brown, though he claimed that her death was a suicide. Gillette was executed by electric chair on March 30, 1908.[1] The murder trial drew international attention when Brown's love letters to Gillette were read in court. Dreiser saved newspaper clippings about the case for several years before writing his novel, during which he studied the case closely. He based Clyde Griffiths on Chester Gillette, deliberately giving him the same initials.

The novel is a tragedy in the strict sense, Clyde's destruction being the consequence of his innate weaknesses: moral and physical cowardice, lack of scruple and self-discipline, muddled intellect and unfocused ambition; additionally, the effect of his ingratiating (Dreiser uses the word "soft") social manner places temptation in his way which he cannot resist.

This novel is full of symbolism, ranging from Clyde's grotesque description of the high gloomy walls of the factory as an opportunity for success, symbolizing how it is all a mirage, to the description of girls as "electrifying" to foreshadow Clyde's destination to the electric chair; Dreiser transforms everyday mundane objects to symbols.

Dreiser sustains readers' interest in the lengthy novel (over 800 pages) by the accumulation of detail and by continually varying the "emotional distance" of his writing from Clyde and other characters, from detailed examination of their thoughts and motivations to dispassionate reportage.[2]

In popular culture

The novel has been adapted several times into other forms and the storyline has been used, not always unattributed, as the basis for other works:

  • Sergei Eisenstein prepared a screenplay in the late 1920s which he hoped to have produced by Paramount or by Charlie Chaplin during Eisenstein's stay in Hollywood in 1930.
  • In April 1929 Dreiser agreed that German director Erwin Piscator should produce a stage version of An American Tragedy. Piscator's stage adaptation premiered in Vienna in April 1932 and made its US debut in April 1935 at the Hedgerow Theatre, Rose Valley. The play was produced as well by Lee Strasberg at the Group Theatre in March 1936 and again by the Hedgerow Theatre in September 2010 (where it was wrongly credited to Piscator's wife Maria Ley).
  • In the 1940s the novel inspired an episode of the award-winning old-time radio comedy Our Miss Brooks, an episode known as "Weekend at Crystal Lake" and sometimes known as "An American Tragedy." The episode revolved around the characters' misinterpreting the intentions of biology teacher Philip Boyton (played by Jeff Chandler), Connie Brooks's (Eve Arden) high school colleague and love interest. The characters fear that Boynton plans to kill Miss Brooks during a leisurely weekend at their boss's lakeside retreat. The episode was broadcast twice, on September 19, 1948, and — with very minor changes — on August 21, 1949. The episode was also repeated in 1955, at a time when the show was a hit on both radio and television.[3]
  • Further television or film adaptations of An American Tragedy have been produced in Brazil (Um Lugar ao Sol, TV series, 1959, director: Dionísio Azevedo), Italy ("Una tragedia americana", Rai 1, 1962, regista: Anton Giulio Majano), Czechoslovakia (Americká tragédia, TV series, 1976, director: Stanislav Párnicky), Philippines (Nakaw na pag-ibig, film, 1980, director: Lino Brocka) and Japan (Hi no ataru basho, TV series, 1982, director: Masami Ryuji).
  • In 2007 the band Divine Reich released an album entitled An American Tragedy on the record label Kheperi Global Media. The album's theme and lyrical content was inspired by the subject matter of the novel.
  • In 2008 a Russian film company released a modern version of Dreiser's novel entitled 'A life that was not meant to be' ("Жизнь, которой не было ...") with actor Vladimir Zherebtsov playing the principal part


In 2005, the book was placed on Time Magazine's list of the top 100 novels written in English since 1923.[6]

Further reading

  • An American Tragedy: A Study Guide
  • Theodore Dreiser: An American Tragedy The Library of America. Accessed on October 28, 2005.
  • "Double Exposure," an article about differences between the two film versions of An American Tragedy, in Opera News, December 2005, pp. 24–31. [1]


  1. ^ Nelson, Randy F. The Almanac of American Letters. Los Altos, California: William Kaufmann, Inc., 1981: 195–196. ISBN 0-86576-008-X
  2. ^ Howe, Irving (1964). Afterword to Signet edition. Signet. 
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ TIME Specials: ALL TIME 100 Novels, Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo, Time, 16 October 2005. Accessed 2011-10-23.
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